ITALIAN LITERATURE

The rise of a literature, both written and spoken, in the vernacular began in the 13th century; a period of great political and civil revival in the Italian cities and a lively renaissance in art and culture after the difficult centuries following barbarian domination. There were a great number of trends in 13th-century literature: religious poetry (which thrived in Umbria partly as a result of the activity of Saint Francis, especially with the work of Jacopone da Todi); poetry made popular by the French jongleurs; the comic-satirical poetry of Cecco Angiolieri; chivalric literature (the chansons de geste derived from the French); didactic and moralistic prose in which Brunetto Latini was prominent, and, the most widespread, love poetry.

The first Italian poetry written with literary pretensions emerged, and flourished in Sicily at the Court of the Emperor Frederick II, starting from around 1220 and inspired by the Provencal love lyrics. The poets of the Sicilian school (Guido delle Colonne, Pier dela Vigna, Cielo Dalcamo) treated their single theme of love according to the courtly model. In this way a poetic tradition was begun in which the vernacular Italian was increasingly cleansed of dialectical excess. Later this trend spread to central Italy, especially Tuscany where the poets (Chiaro Davanzati, Compiuta Donzella) expanded and enriched the Sicilian lyric by confronting moral and political themes which reflected the ideals of Communal life.

The most important literary movement of the latter half of the 13th century was what Dante called the "dolce stil novo". The dominant theme of the poets (Guido Guinizelli, Guido Cavalcanti) was the basic experience of the conscience and the life of the soul. What was new about the style was not simply a more spiritual conception of woman, exalted as an angel of salvation, but a deeper intellectual and philosophical examination of love as the source of moral virtue, and a more refined searching of the psyche.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321): The 14th century was a period of gradual change in Medieval life and culture which gave rise to a new concept of existence. It also saw a maturing of the literary tradition which was given its greatest expression by the Florentine Dante Alighieri. Dante's work was the origin to the modern Italian literary and linguistic tradition. The early lyrics are collected in the "Vita Nuova", an idealized autobiography in which the poet sings of his love for Beatrice whilst at the same time transcending that love for a higher one: the love of God. In the other works prior to the "Divine Comedy" ("Convivio","De vulgari eloquentia", "De monarchia"), Dante deals with contemporary themes of the spirit, culture, and politics.

Dante's major work, and the greatest in Italian literature is the "Divine Comedy": a complex and highly poetic work treating a vast subject. The content unites the culture and spirit of the Middle Ages and expresses a religious faith in a universe built and run by God's will. Dante's vision is of a journey in the afterlife through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise where he encounters the souls of the great men of the past and discusses with them the most important themes of humanity: philosophy, religion and morality, politics and culture.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375): Boccaccio can be ranked alongside Dante and Petrarch as one of the three great Italian literary figures of the 14th century who were also prominent on the European Scene. He can be distinguished from them, however by his greater concentration on earthly themes and subjects and his relative disinterest in moral, religious, theological and political issues. Boccaccio's greatest work is "The Decameron", a collection of 100 tales linked in a narrative framework, where he masterfully portrays different characters and their various passions, thus creating a vivacious image of life in all its many facets.

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) (1304-1374): Petrarch differed from Dante in that he actively confronted the division between austere Medieval religion and the enjoyment of worldly goods, particularly love and fame. In this he was a precursor of the Humanist thought of the Renaissance with its full evaluation of earthly existence. Petrarch was the author of numerous philosophical, religious and poetic works in Latin, but his major works, I Trionfi, and Il Canzoniere, are written in the vernacular. In the latter collection of poems, he examines his soul, analyses his unrequited love for Laura (whoever the lady may have been) and probes his inner - unresolved - crises.

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Italian Poems


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